In the introduction to his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye mentions, with disapproval, that there reportedly exists a dissertation charting the degrees of gloom in Thomas Hardy’s fiction. Certainly, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, and Jude the Obscure are as close to novel-tragedies as anything in English literature. Who ever forgets the opening of Hardy’s most perfect book, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which Michael Henchard, while drunk at a country fair, actually sells his wife and child to a passing sailor? Reform all you may, such an act will eventually come to light — like the murder of Laius or the return of the repressed — and wreak your destruction.
As it happens, Thomas Hardy’s poetry is full of similar tales of marital tragedy and division, of error and mischance, of “life’s little ironies,” as he called one of his short-story collections. In general, he sets his poems — there are nearly a thousand — in his native rural Dorset, the weather is usually rainy or otherwise bleak, and the subject matter most often love or lost love or regret or death. One series of lyrics is called “In Tenebris” — in the darkness. When it’s a cold November in the soul, Melville’s Ishmael may go off to sea, but some of us simply reach for Hardy’s collected poems.
Philip Larkin — the Eeyore of modern poetry — would rank Hardy as high as Yeats, whom he occasionally resembles. I wouldn’t go that far, if only because few lines of Hardy are outstandingly memorable. But the man does knows how to convey, with utter convincingness, the sadness of life, the pathos caught by that Virgilian catchphrase: Sunt lacrimae rerum — There are tears in things. (Hardy himself studied Latin and Greek.) He once said that “poetry is emotion put into measure” and, one after another, his poems catch at the heart. Let me quote, in full, one of his most famous, and the one that first made me realize that there was more to Hardy than “The Convergence of the Twain,” that rather tedious anthology piece about the sinking of the Titanic. Based on an old folk belief, “The Oxen” is my favorite Christmas poem:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees.”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Hardy himself lost his religious faith, but remained “churchy,” to use his own word, and tended to remember with fondness the Sunday rituals of his childhood. He was born the son of a mason and builder in 1840, was apprenticed to an ecclesiastical architect at 16, wrote some poetry when a young man (for which there was no audience), and then at the age of 30 launched his career as a novelist. He published his first four novels — including Far From the Madding Crowd — by the time he turned 34, and he kept writing fiction till he was in his mid fifties. Then he stopped. He was by then rich and honored, he lived in a grand house (Maxgate) that he himself had designed (and that his father and brother had built), and he was weary of being vilified by critics for the sexual and social honesty of his books. So he returned to his first love, poetry. An inspiration to late bloomers, Hardy the poet really hit his stride in his sixties and seventies. As he says in “An Ancient to Ancients,” some imaginations “burnt brightlier towards their setting-day.” He died, full of honors, in 1928.
Many of Hardy’s best poems focus on his first wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford. Like the protagonists of a Daphne du Maurier novel, the two had fallen in love when the young Hardy had come to help restore a church in romantic, sea-swept Cornwall. Yet over the succeeding years the childless couple gradually became estranged. Nonetheless, Hardy found himself emotionally ravaged when, after nearly 40 years of marriage, his wife suddenly died in 1912. A great scholar of the novelist and poet, Carl J. Weber, has argued that Hardy’s subsequent lyrics about Emma — chiefly “Poems 1912-1913” — are as a sequence comparable to the sonnets of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They record every aspect of love, from initial infatuation to the grief of loss through death. Two of the finest are “The Going” and “At Castle Boterel.” In the first, Hardy remembers his idyllic early glimpses of Emma and regrets that he didn’t try better to make their marriage work. Here are the last two stanzas:
“Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal? We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’ “:
Well, well! All’s past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon …O you could not know
That such swift feeling
No soul foreseeing —
Not even I — would undo me so!”
As often with Hardy, the diction can be somewhat gnarled and old fashioned, but the sentiment is always real, always true to our weakly human nature. In “At Castle Boterel” the aged poet remembers a long-ago excursion with Emma — and the ecstatic moment that ensued:
What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, —
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.
It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story: To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore
By thousands more.
Hardy, recalling this passionate scene, closes with lines that might appear in a sentimental Irish song, and yet he makes us read them so that we feel a throat-catching pang of loss:
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
The pervasive sense of the forlorn, of rural traditions fading away (“Now no Christmas brings in neighbours”), of love missed or gone sour, all the contrast between what is and what was, imbue many of these poems with a truly haunted quality. Indeed, quite literally so. Is there any other poetry in English so full of ghosts as Hardy’s? The dead speak from the grave, specters play music in cemeteries, spirits and shades “companion” those they still love. “In the towns I am tracked by phantoms having weird detective ways,” he tells us in “Wessex Heights.” Some of these poems resemble ballads, like “The Trampwoman’s Tragedy” — in which a woman’s impulsive flirtation leads to murder and the hanging of the man she truly loves — while others are bitter-sweet lyrics like “An Upbraiding”:
Now I am dead you sing to me
The songs we used to know
But while I lived you had no wish
Or care for doing so.
Now I am dead you come to me
In the moonlight, comfortless;
Ah, what would I have given alive
To win such tenderness!
When you are dead, and stand to me
Not differenced, as now,
But like again, will you be cold
As when we lived, or how?
With the utmost simplicity, Hardy also regularly creates perfect descriptive miniatures. In “Channel Firing” the sound of heavy guns disturbs a church, so that “the mouse lets fall the altar-crumb.” In “During Wind and Rain,” he observes “How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” And “A Sheep Fair” is virtually tactile in its evocation of wetness:
The wool of the ewes is like a sponge
With the daylong rain:
Jammed tight, to turn, or lie, or lunge,
They strive in vain.
Their horns are soft as finger-nails,
Their shepherds reek against the rails,
The tied dogs soak with tucked-in tails,
The buyer’s hat-brims fill like pails,
Which spill small cascades when they shift their stand
In the daylong rain.
Isn’t that wonderful? As he remarks in “Afterwards,” he was ” a man who used to notice such things.” But then Hardy was a countryman, he knew his livestock, the domestic beasts, the wild animals, and he loved them all. Talking about a hedgehog, again in “Afterwards,” he projects his future epitaph: “He strove that such innocent creatures/ should come to no harm,/ But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”
For all his love of nature, Hardy is nonetheless at his very best when depicting the ways that people come together or fall apart, all our tawdry and glorious “human shows.” In “The Contretemps” a married woman nearly embraces a stranger when she mistakes him for the man she means to run off with. Her lover and husband then appear and both spurn her as untrue. So far the poem is almost a French farce, yet it soon deepens into something ineffably tender. The stranger recalls, in an exquisite stanza, the woman’s beauty on that long-ago evening :
So it began; and I was young,
She pretty, by the lamp,
As flakes came waltzing down among
The waves of her clinging hair, that hung
Heavily on her temples, dark and damp.
The night then whispers to them both: “One pairing is as good as another/ Where all is venture!/ Take each other.” And so they do. But what happens later, “what of the chapter so begun?” The narrator chooses to remain silent: “Well, happiness comes in full to none/ Let peace lie on lulled lips: I will not say.” One can imagine whole novels.
In Anatomy of Criticism Northrop Frye emphasizes that the mode of tragedy can readily slide into that of irony. Aren’t we all, to borrow one of Hardy’s titles, “Time’s Laughingstocks”? Consider, for instance, the sprightly rhythm, and uncomfortable humor, of “The Ruined Maid”:
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?”-
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
The poem ends with a double-edged flourish:
— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
Amelia is certainly a long way from Tess. But Hardy’s most savage verse can be found in his fifteen brief “Satires of Circumstance.” Take “In the Nuptial Chamber”: here a bride — “a lace-robed phantom” — suddenly starts upright when she hears the town band playing a tune to honor the newlyweds. What’s wrong, her new husband asks? The woman’s answer will pierce any man to the marrow:
“O but you don’t know!” ‘Tis the passionate air
To which my old Love waltzed with me,
And I swore as we spun that none should share
My home, my kisses, till death, save he!
And he dominates me and thrills me through,
And it’s he I embrace while embracing you!”
Desolation, regret, bitterness, humor, nature — all these recur throughout Hardy’s brown, autumnal poetry. Sometimes his language can be heavy on regionalisms and archaic English dialect, but this is forgivable when you consider the compensations: His command of every sort of meter and verse form, his vivid recreation of the speaking voice, his way of turning short poems into short stories. In this last, he’s almost like Robert Frost. (Hardy’s line “A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore” actually sounds like a run-up to Frost’s “Design.”) Ideally, a new reader should just plunge into James Gibson’s The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan/Palgrave), a book you will want to own, sooner or later. That said, Robert Mezey’s Selected Poems (Penguin) is a terrific value: Mezey’s introduction is impassioned, deeply knowledgeable, and witty; his notes are succinct but illuminating; and an appendix includes many of Hardy’s own comments on the nature of poetry: “The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style — being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there. It brings wonderful life into the writing. . . . ”
Certainly there is “wonderful life” in my current favorite of all Hardy’s poems. Let me end, appropriately, with “Great Things”:
Sweet cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
Spinning down to Weymouth town
By Ridgway thirstily,
And maid and mistress summoning
Who tend the hostelry:
O cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me!
The dance it is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
With candles lit and partners fit
For night-long revelry;
And going home when day-dawning
Peeps pale upon the lea:
O dancing is a great thing,
A great thing to me!
Love is, yea, a great thing,
A great thing to me,
When, having drawn across the lawn
In darkness silently,
A figure flits like one a-wing
Out from the nearest tree:
O love is, yes, a great thing,
A great thing to me!
Will these be always great things,
Great things to me? . . .
Let it befall that One will call,
“Soul, I have need of thee”:
What then? Joy-jaunts, impassioned flings,
Love, and its ecstasy,
Will always have been great things,
Great things to me!